New age of open architecture is rife with opportunities, pitfalls

Open is in, closed is out for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show.

For the thousands of people who converge on Las Vegas every January to gawk at gadgets, the annual CES is all about size.

But for the industry insiders who meet in hotel suites and schmooze at private cocktail shindigs, one topic of discussion is likely to be whether the “walled garden” is about to be overrun by a new wave of technological openness.

Signs are everywhere that closed, proprietary devices and services may be on the way out.

In 2007, Google unveiled an open (and free) operating system for cell phones, dubbed Android, which would make it easier for anyone to create applications and deliver content — without doing a deal with the mobile operator.

An executive at gamemaker Electronic Arts predicts the eventual demise of incompatible, proprietary game consoles. The social network Facebook gained momentum by allowing any software developer with a good idea to create applications that Facebook users can easily add to their profiles. And even Apple, one of the most avid walled gardeners, promised to make its iPhone more accessible to outside developers.

“In the past, closed was the way to go,” says Dmitry Shapiro, chief executive of the video site Veoh. “But the Internet has shown us that openness works. Consumers demand it.”

The shift to openness could benefit media companies by making it easier for them to get their wares onto a wide range of handheld devices, set-top boxes and game consoles without having to leap technical hurdles and wrestle with incompatible formats. Electronic Arts, for instance, currently has to crank out games for more than 14 different systems.

But open platforms will also likely mean more noise and competition for the consumer’s time.

Blake Krikorian, chief executive of SlingMedia, says the Internet is the ultimate open platform, since anyone can develop software for it or use it to deliver content.

That openness is permeating other technologies, says Krikorian, whose Silicon Valley startup was acquired by EchoStar Communications last year.

“Things will continue to progress toward more and more openness, but it isn’t black or white,” Krikorian says. “There will still be proprietary networks and devices that are more controlled, since openness can present you with an abyss of choice.”

Attendees at this year’s edition of the Consumer Electronics Show may also be wondering:

n Whether 2008 will be the year 3-D television, demonstrated at the show in the past, finally makes its debut in consumers’ living rooms.

n Whether Hulu, the Fox/NBC joint venture to distribute video on the Internet, can escape the fate of prior media joint ventures (like Movielink). “I think Hulu is a really well-designed service, and what they’re doing is more impressive than Joost,” says analyst Will Richmond of Broadband Directions, referring to another TV-on-the-Internet venture. “I give ‘em a B-plus.”

n Whether an announcement will be made that will tip the balance toward Blu-ray or HD DVD high-definition discs.

n Whether any of the new generation of Internet-linked set-top boxes can succeed without a cable, telco or satellite partner. “These boxes create new inconveniences for consumers without fully addressing what the consumer’s real need is,” Richmond says. “I think technologies like Akimbo, Apple TV and Vudu will all remain in the world of the early adopters.”

n Whether MTV Networks’ “Rock Band” and Activision’s “Guitar Hero III” point toward a new generation of games that involve movement, and appeal to audiences outside of the traditional young male gamer demographic.

n Whether tiny video projectors and flexible, paperlike screens will soon be built into all kinds of devices. Analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates says he’s eager to see this year’s demo from Microvision, a Seattle-area company that hopes to integrate laser-driven Pico Projectors into cell phones, allowing them to cast images on walls.

n Whether mobile carriers and phone manufacturers will figure out how to deliver a decent video experience. “What we don’t have yet is the infrastructure to support a seamless consumer experience when it comes to mobile video,” says Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media at Disney-ABC Television Group.

n Whether other companies will be able to achieve the kind of fluid integration of product and service that Apple has achieved with its iPod and iTunes Store, and Amazon with its Kindle e-book reader and online trove of digital books. “Ninety-five percent of the consumer electronics world has no idea how to implement that combination of hardware, software, services and content,” Krikorian says.

The agenda of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show seems markedly less media-focused than 2007, when keynoters included Disney and CBS toppers Bob Iger and Les Moonves. But 2008 will likely mark the swan song for Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates, who traditionally delivers the conference’s opening keynote address, but who is phasing out of the company he founded to focus more on philanthropy.

TIP SHEET

What: The Consumer

Electronics Show

When: Today through Thursday

Where: Las Vegas Convention Center, Hilton and Sands/Venetian

Keynoters: Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Intel’s Paul Otellini, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, GM’s Rick Wagoner and CEA’s Gary Shapiro

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